Upper Shirley Vineyards

Wow, what a difference a few weeks makes! I visited here in early March right after I participated in the Virginia Wine Expo in Richmond. Now I’m ‘social distancing’. You have no idea how much I miss this place now!

Upper Shirley Vineyards has a different vibe from other Virginia wineries. While some serve light fare, they have a full restaurant. Many wineries are part of a trail with 3-4 other places; Upper Shirley stands alone. Most tasting rooms are on the small side; this place is huge by comparison.

But you know what? This strategy is spot on! Upper Shirley goes all-out so you don’t have to visit anywhere else. Given what I saw, I don’t know why anybody would want to.

Located on the banks of the James River next to a historic plantation, Upper Shirley is definitely in “the countryside”. That sounds odd given it’s only half an hour from Richmond, yet very true.

Upper Shirley is the brainchild of Tayloe Dameron, who saw potential in putting a winery in an otherwise undeveloped stretch of land outside Richmond. At the top of his ‘to do’ list was to figure out how to make great wine. Fortunately Dameron partnered up with Michael Shaps, who’s likely won more wine awards than anyone in Virginia. So winemaker – check.

Tayloe also researched how to plant a vineyard in an area that’s challenging for vinifera. The local soil is exceptionally vigorous so he planted the vines well apart to ensure maximum sun exposure, facilitating ripening. He also found a gravely plot of land that has great drainage. Through careful growing and site selection practices like these Tayloe managed to get his 22 acres vines in balance. So vineyard – check.

As we chatted you could tell Tayloe is (justifiably) proud of his wine, although he wasn’t shy about talking up his food menu either (try their burger!). Within an hour of opening Upper Shirley’s indoor space was PACKED. Luckily I found additional seating on their patio overlooking the river, which provided me with an amazing view.

Of course this is still a winery first and foremost, so I got down to sampling. The white wines were all from the 2018 growing season, which worried me at first – until I tried them. While many others gave up on the 2018 vintage, I think Michael pulled a hat trick here and made some damn good whites.

I really liked the Viognier, which was light with notes of honeysuckle. Following that was their Sauvignon Blanc; aromatic and reminiscent of a cool-climate wine. The Chardonnay had a great nose and the partial French oak did wonders for its long finish. Finishing up the lineup was a semi-sweet “#2 White”, their Provence-style Rosé, and a very clean & crisp sparkling.

We then moved on to the reds, all from the 2016 harvest. The Merlot had a nice cherry nose and I found it to be very fruit driven. The Petit Verdot had a big mouthfeel, with black fruit up front. Following that was their “Zachariah” red blend, and last but not least a Tannat that was bold but not slap-your-face tannic bold. I loved all of them, but hands down the smooth Zachariah (which has a dash of Tannat) was my favorite.

I came by for a tasting and ended up staying a few hours. Tayloe wasn’t joking when he explained his entire goal is to give you enough that you don’t have to go anywhere else.

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